When I first bought my apartment in New York, some fifteen years ago, I volunteered to sit on the board of the condo building. I figured it would be a good way to meet the people who lived in the other 149 apartments, get a handle on what was important to our little community, and maybe, just maybe, make the building a better place.
I served for ten years, several of them as president, and there was some meeting of neighbors and improving of community. Mostly, though, there was tsuris.
In all that time, nobody ever took me aside and told me how great it was that the building was running so smoothly. I never heard satisfaction that the common areas were so clean, the elevators so reliable, the storage units so commodious. What people noticed – what people everywhere always notice – were the problems.
I heard about it when the washing machines were broken, when the doorman wasn’t helpful, when (yes) the exit signs of our newly installed emergency lighting system were unattractive. What really opened the floodgates, though, was the new contract with the cable TV provider, which specified that users of broadband (most of the residents) got lower rates, but bare-bones customers paid about $10 more per month. We were so besieged by aggrieved television watchers that I starting taking the stairs to avoid elevator confrontations. It was grim.
Kevin and I are having a different experience out here in the sticks. We’ve joined several local organizations, including the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing, the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, the Barnstable County Beekeeping Association, and the Indian Ponds Association. Not only does no one call us to complain about the quahog harvest or colony collapse disorder, we’ve discovered, in our community-mindedness, that there’s something in it for us!
Through the Organic Gardeners, we met Al and Christl, who have been the other half of some of the best trades we’ve made. In return for clams, smoked bluefish, oysters, and eggs, they’ve given us asparagus, strawberries, raspberry brandy, winter squash, rhubarb, various plants, and tomato seedlings that became the source of the best BLTs ever.
Through the Beekeepers, we met Claire and Paul, who have paid housecalls on our beehives to help us figure out what’s going on inside them. They also encourage – encourage! – us to ask questions via e-mail, which they always answer promptly and thoroughly. We bring them the occasional dozen eggs, but that’s just a token.
And then there’s Bob, who serves with me on the board of the Indian Ponds Association. Bob, besides being a really nice guy dedicated to maintaining the health of the three lakes that constitute the Indian Ponds, is a commercial fisherman. I can summarize the advantage of knowing a commercial fisherman in one word: bycatch!
At this time of year, Bob fishes for squid, and he comes home with the sea creatures who had the bad luck to get in the way. A few weeks ago, he gave me a John Dory and a tilefish, neither of which I had cooked before, and both of which were lovely and fresh. All he got in return was gratitude and an e-mail telling him how I cooked them and how good they were.
Then, yesterday, I got an e-mail from Bob. This was it, in its entirety:
Fluke? Weakfish? Tilefish?
Now don’t you wish someone sent e-mails like that to you? “Yes please,” was what I said, and I just picked up a bag with three kinds of fish, filleted and iced down. In return, all I’ve offered up is the promise of oak logs on which to grow mushrooms, from trees we’ll be cutting down in the spring.
So there you have it. I’ve become a big fan of community engagement because I come out ahead. Civic booty!
Sounds all wrong, but I don’t think that, at bottom, it’s selflessness that builds community. In a sense, we’re all in it to make the place we live the kind of place we want to live in. Individual interaction – a produce trade, a beehive housecall, a drive-by fish pick-up – is the unit of community. Enough of them, and pretty soon nobody’s bowling alone.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate bowling alone – if you bowl the way I do, you see its advantages. But I think life is fuller and more interesting if you’re connected to your neighbors by what you have in common. Just as long as it’s not the cable bill.